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Fact Or Fiction: Headrests Were Designed To Be Detachable

A number of you may have seen that meme buzzing around Facebook and other social media platforms letting you know that headrests were deliberately designed to be detachable so that if you are trapped inside the car and need to break a window to get out, you have a useful tool for smashing the glass.  As we’re interested in quirky facts, great designs and safety features here at Private Fleet, I thought we’d check this one out.  Is it, in fact, true that this is what the designers were thinking when they designed headrests?

OK, in a nutshell, here’s the results after a quick bit of research:

  • Yes, head rests tend to be detachable.
  • Yes, head rests are a safety feature.
  • Yes, you can use a detached head rest to break glass if you need to exit via a window.
  • No, this was not a deliberate part of the design.

(Thanks to Snopes.com  and Truth Or Fiction  for doing some of the hard yards of research here).

The primary purpose of a head rest is to protect the occupant of the seat in question from whiplash injuries, as they prevent the head from lashing back suddenly during a collision or if the car is rear-ended. Your head is quite heavy, after all, and the momentum and G-forces involved in a whiplash inducing collision puts one heck of a strain on your neck vertebrae and muscles.  It’s the weight of the head and the strain on neck muscles that has been the primary concern of designers right from the beginning.  The first US patent for head rests in vehicles was issued in 1921, although the designer’s main concern was driver fatigue.  It wasn’t until 1969 that they became mandatory in the US.

If we have a quick look at the original patent issued to Benjamin Katz of Oakland, California (another inventor a lot of people ought to be grateful to), there’s no mention anywhere of the importance of being detachable so that occupants are able to use the headrest supports as a tool for breaking glass.  The patent is more concerned with reducing driver fatigue and hopes to provide something that allows the driver to “rest his head, relax the tired neck muscles, and still maintain his alert vigil.” Of breaking glass and even of whiplash, there is no mention.

The new, improved patent from 1930, issued to Sverre Quisling of Wisconsin, mentions the ability to use a head rest as a hanger for jackets and the like.  The 1950 patent granted to Lawrence Schott of Detroit certainly mentions detachability but has no mention of using the headrest to break glass.  The designer had folding seats in mind, as removing the headrest made it easier to fold the seat.  Various other designs were developed and put forward over the years between 1950 and 1969, all aiming to either prevent whiplash or to reduce driver fatigue. The patent that I can find that resembles the modern head rest design most closely was issued to Rachel L Rising in 1958.  One could spend quite a while trawling through all the different designs and all the different patents (somebody’s written a whole book on the topic – fact!), but you’re not going to find a mention anywhere of using the supports of the headrest to smash glass for an emergency exit.

Fast forward to today and car designers are still working on head rest design. They’re height and tilt adjustable, they’re provided in rear seats as well as front seats and they come in special active whiplash-preventing designs.  Saab was the first to come out with an active whiplash protecting headrest, with marques from the upper and lower end of the prestige spectrum following suit, from Toyota and Subaru through to Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar.  It’s passive safety and protection of the occupants that are the key concerns of the designers.

So why are head rests removable?  In the case of rear seat headrests, they’re removable for better visibility – if the driver wants to and there’s nobody in the back, the head rests can come out to allow the driver a clearer view of what’s behind.  In the case of front seats, they’re detachable so you can fold the seats flat should you want to sleep in it, or so you can put a car seat cover on easily.  Removability also had the possibility of making sure that all seats were compatible with child safety seats. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standards on the topic  make it clear that if head rests are removable, you can only remove them deliberately with two hands to prevent idiots monkeying about and whipping the head rest out if they don’t like them.  Not a word about using them as a tool for breaking glass.

So where did the idea of using a head rest to break the glass if you get your car into deep water come from?  According to Snopes.com, it goes back to a Japanese TV show that demonstrated this survival tip:

Using a head rest to break a window is a fine example of human ingenuity and quick thinking in an emergency.  Certainly the person who first thought of doing this is something of a genius. If you are unlucky enough to drive your car into deep water and the car is sinking, you are going to have to exit via the window, and modern fast-glass cars with electric windows make this a problem, as the water shorts out the system if the car goes underwater – but it won’t do so straight away, so this should always be your first move, along with taking off your seat belt.  Car glass is also very tough, especially on the windscreen (don’t; bother smashing this – go for the door windows).  Other tools can be used if you can’t get the window open in time: special tools bought for the purpose, stiletto heels, spark plugs, hammers, etc.  Certainly, the detachable headrests are handy but this is an added and unintended bonus rather than an integral part of the design.

If you can’t get the technique right for busting the window, the recommendation is to wait until there’s enough water in the car to equalise the pressure inside and out (try not to panic), take a deep breath and open the door as soon as you can.

Of course, if you have an older car with older windows that wind down manually, you are probably feeling smug at this point, as the issue of window mechanisms shorting out isn’t a problem.

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